I stopped outside the door at my favorite hangout, Bubba-Doo’s, to hold it open for an acquaintance. I knew Landrum from his occasional visits there to the country store. He showed up some afternoons and very rarely said much.
In fact, Landrum had a quiet cool about him. For his generation, you might say the actor Robert Mitchum was a template. Watching him quietly sip from an 8-ounce styrofoam coffee cup, his demeanor suggested he knew some things. He just wasn’t going to force what he knew on you.
On this day, though, he spoke up first. He stopped me there and I could tell he had something on his mind. “Billy’s in pretty bad shape today,” he said to me. “His wife died over the weekend. Wanted you to know before you walked in. You’ll be a help to him if he’s here.”
The inevitabilities of life and death are woven inextricably into the human tale. Yet when the death part comes along, so often we are surprised and nearly always we grieve. To state the obvious, death hurts.
Here is a hard reality: If you put enough people together in a community, sooner or later someone is going to get their heart broken. Then, it’s going to be up to that circle of friends and acquaintances to prop that person up a little as they limp along.
Bubba-Doo’s, among so many other things, is a community right here in this little country crossroads. Yes, the characters come and go. No one, except for Winston (the owner) really stays all day. But the regulars especially show up so regularly that there is a fellowship to the place.
“Bubba-Doo’s, among so many other things, is a community right here in this little country crossroads.”
People who wouldn’t have known each other at all share this funky country store in common. Some only stop in to buy gas or supplies. Maybe their dog needs food, or they forgot to grab a gallon of milk at the grocery store. Others drop in only because of the restaurant and bar that sits inside the store. There is a counter there that regularly fills up with diners who stay to chat.
Landrum’s heads-up gave me a split second to prepare myself for what could happen once we got inside. Instinctively, I glanced at my watch. It was early evening on a Tuesday. Sure as time itself, most evenings Billy can be found sitting up at the bar with his friend Hector.
The two of them have for some time now been de facto greeters to all who enter the restaurant part of Bubba-Doo’s during late afternoons. One or both of them will lift their beer mug in the air and call your name if they know it. A stranger will at least get a polite head nod, one of the universal Southern greetings. If Billy or Hector are well into their second mug, even a newcomer might get a boisterous, “Hey there!”
On this day, though, things were more subdued. Much more so. A few months ago, I had heard from the folks there that Billy’s wife was battling cancer. A woman in her fifties, this was a recurrence of a previous case. Now, the doctors were throwing everything they could at her fight with cancer. It seems nothing would gain traction.
Over those several weeks, when I saw Billy I sometimes would ask him how she was doing. Or, I might at least whisper to him that I was keeping him on my heart. He would smile and in his own understated way let me know he genuinely appreciated the support.
“He wore his fresh grief heavily, but he was game for keeping his routine.”
Amazingly, Billy was right in his usual spot on this day. He wore his fresh grief heavily, but he was game for keeping his routine. Hector was by his side, as usual. Three or four people were hovering nearby, and they were doing their best to offer words that inevitably fell to the ground insufficient. However, as chosen family they still needed to give him something of their hearts.
You could hear a quiet Billy offer back to them, “I really appreciate that.” Or, to some he might say, “It sure does hurt. But she fought a good fight.” Always, he added “I sure do miss her already.”
Shirley leaned in and whispered to me: “I haven’t spoken to him yet. But I need to. I just don’t know what to say. I’ve known him forever, and suddenly I’m blank.”
I replied: “I know. That’s because this is too big for words to fix. Yet the challenge is that we all have to at some point express ourselves to him.”
“I’m a grown adult,” she continued. “I’ve lost loved ones. It’s not like I haven’t been down this road before with my own family. Why don’t I know what to say?”
“Part of that is because you care about Billy,” I replied. “So you feel this pressure to get it right. What makes it worse is that it might be easier to know what not to say than it is to know what you should say.”
Now, she wanted to hear more. “So, what should I not say?”
“I speak from a church perspective, right? So just hear what I say coming from having been around church people,” I said.
“Fair enough,” she replied. “I mean, you are the minister.”
“People grasp for words that sound like they are of faith.”
“So I hear a lot of things that are well-intended,” I began. “People grasp for words that sound like they are of faith. Things that might be intuitive but that actually are pretty backward theology. They end up a lot of times just repeating things they’ve heard other people say. Things that sound good but sometimes aren’t that helpful. In fact, sometimes we can say things that just make the hurt worse.”
“Like what?” Shirley asked. I knew now I needed to get specific.
“I hear things like, ‘God is in control. God has a plan.’ Well, go tell Billy about that plan right now. Let’s see how much he’ll like God taking his wife from him just to accomplish something else.”
I continued. “Sometimes, you’ll hear ‘God has something to teach you.’ Or, people all the time will say, ‘God needed another angel in heaven.’ You’ll even hear people say, ‘It’s all in God’s timing.’ So, evidently her time came.”
“OK. I’ve probably said all of those things,” Shirley considered.
I said, “If I’m Billy right now, every one of those would probably feel like a dagger to me. If I’m Billy, if it required the death of my wife then there’s nothing I wanted God to teach me that badly. As for angels, I’m pretty sure God’s got plenty of them. Billy still needed his angel here, right by his side.”
“If it required the death of my wife then there’s nothing I wanted God to teach me that badly.”
“I see,” Shirley said. “Let me take a stab at that last one. So, if this was the day God woke up and decided to take Billy’s wife, God’s sounding like a pretty random and cruel God about right now. Because why would God do that?”
“Well, that’s the way I see it anyway,” I offered.
“So, is God actually not in control?” Shirley asked.
“‘Control’ is such a loaded word,” I responded. “Is God the Creator and Sustainer of our very beings? Yes, I would testify so and I do on a regular basis. Is God all powerful? I believe so. God is God, and I am not. But do I believe God woke up one day and said, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll give Billy’s wife, Delores, an incurable cancer. Then, she’ll suffer for months and finally die?’”
“That one’s a struggle for me, Shirley”
“So, how do you explain it?” she asked. Fair question, too.
“I fall short of professing to understand all there is about God’s providence. Where God’s boundaries are, what God will do and what God won’t. I believe any wise Christian would say the same. There’s too much mystery for us to grasp in one lifetime of believing. That’s why it’s faith and not science.”
“There’s too much mystery for us to grasp in one lifetime of believing. That’s why it’s faith and not science.”
“Go on,” she pleaded now.
“Here’s where I come down,” I said. “I believe that in the world where God is still bringing order into chaos, and where God is still bringing light into darkness, there are a lot of possibilities.
“I mean, why can one person who takes immaculate care of their body die tragically young of heart disease or cancer? But another person who hasn’t taken care of themselves lives on. Why does someone who most see as ‘good’ die young and some of the meanest, most cantankerous people live to be old? I think there is just too much mystery in life to figure out.
“But cancer is one of the things that can happen to a human body in this biological world. Heart failure is a reality in our physical world. These are possible outcomes, just like a long and healthy life is also a possibility. Tragedies and accidents happen because people all over are free to make choices that impact themselves or others.”
“This has been helpful,” Shirley reacted. “But still, what do I say to him?”
“I think we’re about to find out what either of us will say. Billy doesn’t have such a long line now. It’s our turn. You want to go over there together?” I offered. “Let’s do!” Shirley affirmed.
I could feel her directing me with her eyes to go first. Like a golfer on an unfamiliar green, I suppose she wanted to read my putt.
Billy saw us walking over, and he gave us both a gift we couldn’t have expected. He reached out and took my hands in his and gently said, “Hey there, friends.” That blessing — consciously or unconsciously on his part — invited us into his pain. We were a welcomed presence.
“That blessing — consciously or unconsciously on his part — invited us into his pain.”
“Billy, I want you to add me to the chorus of voices who are here and have been so sad to hear your news.” Then, I waited so that he had a chance to respond if he wanted.
“Pastor, I sure appreciate that. It’s hard, man. We were together for so long. She was right there by my side and now she won’t be. But this right here. This place and these people. They’re going to love me through it I guess.”
Shirley leaned in with all of the grace and sweetness a woman of the South can muster. “Billy, we love you so!”
That was it. That’s all she could offer. Those were all the words that would come out.
Billy’s countenance shifted noticeably. Instead of a knot of grief, his face moved into a tender and receptive display of gratitude. He reached out and hugged Shirley. “Thank you. Thank you for loving me. I need all of that I can get right now, I guess.”
Then, he looked at me. “Pastor, I ‘spect I’m gonna need to talk with you sometime. This is getting awfully big. I don’t think I can carry this. I’m a man of faith, even if I’m not a church-goer. Could I do that some time later?”
“Billy, you got it. On your timing, we’ll visit when you’re ready. Today’s not a day for theology anyway, at least not for you. Today is a day to let people tell you they love you,” I said. “And hope God gives you the grace to accept all the goodwill that’s coming your way.”
“Today’s not a day for theology anyway, at least not for you.”
“Pastor, I am a blessed man,” he said. “Because this little town won’t let you go through something like this alone.”
With that, we moved along and let Billy just be there with his buddy Hector. I couldn’t help reflecting that to the casual observer, he looked like a guy who sometimes might drink a little too much beer at Bubba-Doo’s.
On a second glance, though, the whole thing looked like something else. Because this day it was apparent that on all of those late afternoons at a country store bar, maybe God had been raising up a support group for Billy that would turn out to be second to none. Now, Billy needed every friend and every good wish that came his way.
In a strange way, he was actually reaping what he had sown. Billy had been a friendly presence for a long time. An odd voice of hospitality in a big country store. He was gifted and willing, as the unofficial greeter, at letting others hear they were noticed as they entered.
Today, he was getting the love that only comes from being known and from being noticed. Yep. Another Bubba-Doo’s miracle.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: